CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Elizabeth Edwards, who closely advised her husband in two bids for the presidency and advocated for health care even as her own health and marriage publicly crumbled, died Tuesday after a six-year struggle with cancer. She was 61.
She died at her North Carolina home surrounded by her three children, siblings, friends and her estranged husband, John, the family said.
“Today we have lost the comfort of Elizabeth’s presence but, she remains the heart of this family,” the family said in a statement. “We love her and will never know anyone more inspiring or full of life. On behalf of Elizabeth we want to express our gratitude to the thousands of kindred spirits who moved and inspired her along the way. Your support and prayers touched our entire family.”
She was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, in the final days of her husband’s vice presidential campaign. The Democratic John Kerry-John Edwards ticket lost to incumbent President George W. Bush.
John Edwards launched a second bid for the White House in 2007, and the Edwardses decided to continue even after doctors told Elizabeth that her cancer had spread. He lost the nomination to Barack Obama.
The couple separated in January after he admitted fathering a child with a campaign videographer.
Elizabeth Edwards had focused in recent years on advocating health care reform, often wondering aloud about the plight of those who faced the same of kind of physical struggles she did but without her personal wealth.
She had also shared with the public the most intimate struggles of her bouts with cancer, writing and speaking about the pain of losing her hair, the efforts to assure her children about their mother’s future and the questions that lingered about how many days she had left to live.
President Barack Obama said he spoke to John Edwards and the Edwardses’ daughter, Cate, on Tuesday afternoon to offer condolences.
“In her life, Elizabeth Edwards knew tragedy and pain,” Obama said in a statement. “Many others would have turned inward; many others in the face of such adversity would have given up. But through all that she endured, Elizabeth revealed a kind of fortitude and grace that will long remain a source of inspiration.”
The president called her a tenacious advocate for fixing the health care system and fighting poverty. “Our country has benefited from the voice she gave to the cause of building a society that lifts up all those left behind,” Obama said.
Elizabeth Edwards and her family had informed the public that she had weeks, if not days, left when they announced on Monday that doctors had told her that further treatment would do no good. Ever the public figure, Edwards thanked supporters on her Facebook page.
“The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered,” she wrote. “We know that. And yes, there are certainly times when we aren’t able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It’s called being human. But I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious. And for that I am grateful.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, one of John Edwards’ rivals for the Democratic nomination in 2008, said the country “has lost a passionate advocate for building a more humane and just society,” while the Edwardses’ family and friends “have lost so much more — a loving mother, constant guardian and wise counselor.”
“Our thoughts are with the Edwards family at this time, and with all those people across the country who met Elizabeth over the years and found an instant friend — someone who shared their experiences and offered empathy, understanding and hope,” Clinton said in a statement.
Vice President Joe Biden said Edwards “fought a brave battle against a terrible, ravaging disease that takes too many lives every day. She was an inspiration to all who knew her, and to those who felt they knew her.”
Kerry called her “an incredibly loving, giving and devoted mother” who fought cancer with “enormous grace and dignity.”
Joe Trippi, a longtime Democratic campaign consultant who Elizabeth Edwards recruited to work for her husband in 2008, recalled her spirit as one of the reasons he joined politics for the 2008 season.
“She was out to live every single day,” Trippi said. “She was going to live every single one of them with all the energy and grit that she could. That’s a big lesson that her life could teach all of us.”
Dr. Otis W. Brawley of the American Cancer Society said the “courage, grace and dignity” that Edwards showed in battling cancer was an inspiration to patients, their families and health care professionals.
The Edwardses met in law school. Cate Edwards has followed her parents into a career in law. A son, Wade, was killed in a traffic accident when he was 16. Elizabeth Edwards had two more children later, giving birth to Emma Claire when she was 48 and Jack when she was 50.
The family asked that donations be made to the Wade Edwards Foundation, which benefits the Wade Edwards Learning Lab.